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Bright Young Belize

A young man wearing a batik sarong and a white shirt with a mandarin collar greets me at Turtle Inn's entrance and leads me across a wooden footbridge that spans a koi-filled pond. Ornamental urns and sculptures of fish and stone turtles are hidden in a thicket of red ginger, oleander, and palm. My thatched villa on stilts is decorated with Asian artifacts and intricately carved settees. A gilded temple door leads to the bathroom, which has an outdoor shower in a pebbled garden. A screened veranda overlooks the impossibly blue sea. If I didn't know better, I'd think I was in Bali. Actually, I'm less than two hours from Miami, in the small Central American country of Belize.

For years, Belize—wedged between Guatemala and Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula—was a favorite destination for adventure travelers. Here, they found an unspoiled land of lush mountains and jungles, pristine Caribbean beaches and islands, and the longest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere. They also found a friendly, democratic country where an ethnically diverse population of Mayans, Mexicans, mestizos, Afro-Indians, even Mennonites, lived together harmoniously, speaking English as the common language (Belize was the former Crown Colony of British Honduras before gaining independence in 1981). Since the government carefully monitored development and had wisely designated more than 40 percent of the country as protected land, hotels in Belize tended to be low-key fishing camps, ecolodges, and scuba diving resorts. But in the past few years, this has started to change, as a number of hoteliers—seduced by the country's virgin beauty—have recognized its potential. As a result, Belize now has some of the region's most exciting places to stay, with designs inspired by indigenous Mayan thatched huts, the fabrics of Guatemala, and the exotic pavilions of Bali.

It was film director Francis Ford Coppola who got the ball rolling a decade ago, when he transformed his 70-acre family retreat in the country's western mountains into Blancaneaux Lodge, after deciding he couldn't afford the staff necessary to keep the place for himself. The fact that Coppola had no experience operating a hotel didn't stop the daring director, who is known as much for his failures (One from the Heart) as for his successes (The Godfather). Blancaneaux fell into the latter category, and Coppola discovered that the hospitality business suited him. "Running a resort is like making a film," he says. "It's wanting to please people through a dramatic presentation." Indeed, it was the desire to entertain that led to Coppola's latest project, Turtle Inn, 130 miles from Blancaneaux on the southern Caribbean coast. "Belize is famous for its beaches, but it didn't have a beach resort that I felt compared to Blancaneaux. So I said, 'Why not open a sister resort on the sea?' "

Initially, Turtle Inn was modest. Taking over an existing small hotel, Coppola hired Bali-based architect Made Wijaya to update the property. Few guests got to experience it, however; less than a year after the hotel opened, in December 2000, Turtle Inn was leveled by Hurricane Iris. Coppola decided to rebuild from scratch and brought back Wijaya, who engaged a team of Balinese stonecutters to work with their Mayan counterparts, sculpting walls, friezes, and pathways. "I made the hotel more elaborate, more luxurious than before—as I have a habit of doing," Coppola says. He also hired massage therapists from Thailand to administer treatments in authentic rice houses (which he had shipped over from Indonesia).

Turtle Inn reopened this February, and despite all the exotic trappings, it is not some Southeast Asian theme park. Rather, the hotel takes inspiration from around the globe, while still being true to its Belizean setting. In the kitchen, Italian chef Antonio Fecarotta (recently of San Francisco's Café Niebaum-Coppola) not only re-creates Coppola-family pizzas and pastas, but also makes his own distinctive dishes based on local cuisine. Caught-that-day mackerel is roasted with lime juice, olive oil, and white wine in a wood-burning oven; lettuces and vegetables are grown on Blancaneaux's organic farm.

Ultimately, Turtle Inn's most powerful draw is its location. There's some of the world's best diving and fishing right offshore. A half-hour boat ride away is the Monkey River, in a primeval jungle that's home to more than 50 species of birds, as well as colonies of howler monkeys, whose Jurassic Park-like roars belie their small size. Nearby Placencia gives a taste of the Caribbean circa 1968, with its hippie cafés and funky guesthouses. The ideal way to get to the village is on one of the resort's fleet of wildly painted retro bikes. It's those kinds of stylish details that are making Turtle Inn the talk of the region.

About 30 miles north of Turtle Inn, an unpaved road leads to another man's vision of paradise: Roberto Fabbri's 18-month-old Kanantik Reef & Jungle Resort. A labor of love for the Italian businessman, who had spent most of his life selling yachts, Kanantik is a compound of 25 modern Mayan huts that are the last word in rustic chic: thatched roofs, plank floors, handcrafted log furniture. Nearby is a small pool, a tower for bird and game spotting, and pavilions for the bar, dining, and reception areas. The rest of the land has been left wild. "Kanantik means 'to take care of' in Mayan, and that's what we want to do for our guests," says the tanned 62-year-old Fabbri, who pads about in bare feet and khaki shorts, hair slicked back, making sure that his dream runs flawlessly.

Fabbri came to Belize eight years ago and wound up spending six years building Kanantik. "I didn't even know what a nail was," he says. "But I learned everything, from plumbing to how to fix the telephone lines." Fabbri spared no expense, assembling an impressive collection of "toys," including a 42-foot high-tech Newton dive boat and a 32-foot Newton fishing boat.

With so many aquatic possibilities to choose from, travelers might easily miss one of Belize's greatest natural wonders: Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, just 10 miles from Kanantik's front gate. This 128,000-acre preserve is known for its resident population of some 80 jaguars. Most Kanantik guests are escorted there by Florencio Shal, a Belizean of Mayan descent. Like many staff members, Shal has been with Kanantik since the beginning, helping first to clear the land and then to build the resort. "Many people in Belize hire foreigners," Fabbri laments. "I want Belizeans to do the job." Fabbri is always looking for ways to incorporate native culture into the operation of the resort. Though the dinner menu is Mediterranean, lunch features regional specialties such as coconut soup and mashed plantains. And at least once a week, the bar's lounge music gives way to the drumming of a local Garifuna group. The Garifuna are descendants of African slaves and indigenous Carib Indians, and their distinctive music has evolved into something called punta-rock; Belizean groups like the Punta Rebels have achieved success on the world-music scene.

When Roberto Fabbri and his business partner came to Belize in 1995, they had millions of dollars to create Kanantik. When Mick and Lucy Fleming arrived in 1977, they had about $300. The young couple had heard that a parcel of land was available for homesteading in western Belize's mountainous Cayo District, near the Guatemalan border, and wound up leasing it for vegetable farming. At the time, neither had any idea that their back-to-the-land adventure would become one of Belize's most prestigious eco-resorts: the Lodge at Chaa Creek.

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